Dictators and Dialects
In recent weeks the Arab world has been rocked by a stunning chain of events, culminating in the ouster of autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt as well as violent protests in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen. For two such autocrats feeling the heat of mass demonstrations, one tactic has been used in an attempt to reconcile political differences and appeal to the angry throngs of citizens: dialect.
On January 14, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali spoke for the last time as president of Tunisia. Ironically, this address would also mark a first for Mr. Ben Ali, who would refrain from speaking in his usual Modern Standard Arabic and instead speak in distinctly Tunisian dialect. Tunisian dialect, or “Tunisian Spoken Arabic” according to the Ethnologue language database, is a Maghrebi dialect that differs substantially from Modern Standard Arabic due to the heavy influence of Berber along with French and Italian loanwords. Tunisian Arabic is spoken by some 9 million Tunisians, though like most other spoken or “colloquial” dialects of Arabic, there is no standard written form.
As a result of its position as the only dialect with a significant presence in written form, Modern Standard Arabic is widespread in government, education, and media throughout the Arab world. In Tunisia, a relatively modern and educated state, Modern Standard Arabic is readily understood by a majority of the population, though for significant numbers of illiterate and parochial citizens it remains inaccessible and ostentatious at times.
Indeed Mr. Ben Ali’s “meaningful gesture” of reverting to dialect lies in stark contrast to his own policies and rise to power. As Tunisian historian Naima Boussofara has pointed out, Ben Ali’s predecessor, President Habib Bourguiba, was prone to using “a constellation of linguistic codes- Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, Tunisian Arabic, and French.” After the 1987 coup d’etat, Ben Ali set a precedent with a string of communiqués and public speeches in removing all other Arabic diglossia from public life and “reclaiming” Modern Standard Arabic as the sole language of the regime.
Despite the socio-linguistic significance of the speech, the content of Mr. Ben Ali’s last minute appeal, which called for expanding political rights, ending all media censorship, and a promise to not run for president in 2014, was ineffectual and unconvincing. Within hours Mr. Ben Ali and his family had absconded to Saudi Arabia, marking the first ouster of an Arab dictator by popular street demonstrations.
Several weeks later following the fall of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and massive demonstrations in Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya, Mr. Ben Ali’s ploy would be mimicked by Saif al Islam Gaddafi, son of Libyan dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi, in an unprepared speech delivered February 20, 2011, on Libyan state television. A debonair socialite and Ph.D. holder from the London School of Economics, Mr. Gaddafi forewent written notes in order to speak “directly” to the people in Libyan dialect.
əlyōm saatakallam maʕākum... bidūn waraqa maktūba, 'aw xiṭāb maktūb. 'aw natakallam maʕakum bi... luɣa ħattā ʕarabiyya fuṣħa. əlyōm saatakallam maʕakum bilahža lībiyya. wa-sa'uxāṭibkum mubāšaratan, ka-fard min 'afrād hāða ššaʕb əllībi. wa-sa'akūn irtižāliyyan fī kalimatī. wa-ħattā l'afkār wa-nniqāṭ ɣeyr mujahhaza u-muʕadda musbaqan. liʔanna hāðā ħadīθ min alqalb wa-lʕaql.(YouTube video here; conspicuously dialectal bits bolded by Lameen Souag)
Today I will speak with you... without a written paper, or a written speech. (N)or even speak to you in the Classical (fuṣħā) Arabic language. Today I will speak with you in Libyan dialect, and address you directly, as an individual member of this Libyan people. And I will speak extempore. Even the ideas and the points are not prepared in advance. Because this is a speech from the heart and the mind.
However, as Lameen Souag of Jabal al-Lughat writes, the speech really isn’t very dialectical at all. Rather, in the words of The Economist’s Johnson language blog, it is “only a few Libyan dialectal bits and pieces mixed into an otherwise Modern Standard Arabic passage.”
Despite the apparent gaffe, the Gaddafi family continues to hold out in Tripoli in spite of widespread civil unrest, and only time will tell as to whether they will suffer the same fate as Ben Ali or Mubarak. Meanwhile this trend of addressing the public in “dialect” has illustrated beyond a doubt the systemic detachment and disconnect between authoritarian Arab leaders and their constituents. Reaching out in “dialect” has done little to cover up the years of oppressive dictatorial rule perpetrated by many Arab leaders. Note to future authoritarians- speeches offering too little too late but given in “dialect” will likely remain too little, too late.
By Andrew Moyseowicz
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